The novel coronavirus has landed in America, and I am terrified. It’s true that there are lots of people who are more vulnerable to the illness than me. But I am a hypochondriac, and I also happen to be vacationing in Oregon this week, not far from the spot where a patient was recently diagnosed with the virus. As such, I have memorized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for preventing against the coronavirus. “Avoid close contact with people who are sick,” the CDC suggests, and this is not a problem for me; for the past week, the mere sound of a cough has sent me speed-walking in the opposite direction. Wash your hands frequently, the CDC says, so I’ve been doing it four times an hour. My hands are chapped and dry, but at least they are clean.
The CDC also recommends that you avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, all of which are mucous membranes that offer new pathways for absorption of the coronavirus. This has presented me with a challenge: I probably touch my face more than 100 times per day, mindlessly scratching and tugging and wiping, dragging my grubby hands across my mucous membranes with reckless abandon. In my archive of daily selfies from the past 10 years, I am touching my face approximately 6.4 percent of the time. How hard would it be to get that percentage down to zero and make my face a hands-free zone? Could I plausibly spend a day without scratching my chin, rubbing my eyes, or picking my nose? What if my life depended on it?
Last Friday, I decided to see if I could do it. The first hour or so of this sanitary adventure was easy enough. Buoyed by the novelty of this tactile restriction, I kept my hands below shoulder level, assiduously avoiding all spots within an 18-inch radius of what I dubbed “the face zone.” When I absolutely needed to enter the face zone—to adjust my eyeglasses, for instance—I took extreme care to not touch my nose or temples, as if I were playing a real-life version of Operation. I periodically reminded myself to avoid any and all of the hand-on-face poses that I might theoretically adopt over the course of a day, like the quizzical chin scratch or the Jack Benny cheek palm. I felt very sanitary.
But as the day wore on, I started feeling an irrepressible impulse to touch and scratch my face. I am not sure whether that urge is just part of being human, or I just have an especially itchy face, or it was because I was thinking so hard about not touching my face. The point is that my dry skin started to make itself known right when I wished it wouldn’t. If you touch your face, you’re going to get the coronavirus, I scolded myself, and the admonition worked until I realized how ridiculous it was. That’s very dumb, I retorted, attempting to refute my own inner monologue. Go ahead! Touch your face! Nothing is going to happen! I was at war with myself, with the battleground stretching from forehead to chin.
Eventually I started to scratch other parts of my body as a substitute for scratching my face. Every time an itch popped up on my cheek or my chin, I would furiously scratch my thigh, hoping to trick myself into thinking the annoying sensation had migrated down my leg. Not only did this diversionary tactic not work, but if anything it seemed to make my face itch even more, as if my face were punishing me for trying to play games with it. If you try to outthink your face, you will lose.
When you are trying to not touch your face, you will engage in a lot of hair-splitting over what, exactly, constitutes touching your face. It doesn’t count as touching your face if it’s not skin-to-skin contact, I reasoned, and I stuck my thumb under my T-shirt to scratch the bottom of my nose. My ears are more part of my head than my face, I determined, and off I went to itch my ears without protection. “You’re touching your face,” my wife announced once, as I swept my hair off my forehead.
“The hair is not part of the face!” I retorted, jamming my hands into my pockets as if I had been caught doing something terribly unsanitary.
“Yes, it is,” she said.
“You can criticize or you can help!” I said, and all at once I realized that the CDC had not issued any restrictions about someone else touching your face. Delighted by this loophole, I asked my wife to scratch my face for me. She pitched in for a while, but soon grew tired of stopping every 100 yards. (We were out in public this whole time; our fellow pedestrians must have thought we were nuts—which, fair point.)
“I don’t want to scratch your face anymore!” she said after I asked for what must have been the 10th time.
“Will you at least blow on it?” I said, pointing to an especially itchy spot on my cheek. As she did so, begrudgingly, I realized that this is literally how the virus spreads, and that the only reason “Do not have anyone else blow on your face” wasn’t one of the CDC’s prevention recommendations was because nobody at the CDC ever imagined that anyone would ever be stupid enough to have someone else do it. “Stop blowing! Stop blowing!” I cried. She did, and then proceeded to taunt me by scratching her own face while looking me straight in the eyes. I hissed as I stuck my thumb under my T-shirt and scratched my cheek.
I desperately needed to moisturize. But I could think of no easy way to do so without touching my face. Finally I went to a drugstore, where I purchased a package of single-use plastic gloves. Donning a glove on my right hand, I squeezed out a dollop of moisturizing lotion onto it and massaged it into my cheeks and forehead. I moisturized again, discarded the glove, and felt incredibly smug, as if I had put one over on the system. About 15 minutes later, my face started to itch again. I gave up and scratched it. We’re all going to die eventually, I mused, and at that point I had decided that I would probably rather get the coronavirus than have to walk around all day with a face full of itches that I cannot scratch.
It’s been a few days since then, and I’m not dead yet. If you’re reading this, neither are you. We have all survived the coronavirus thus far, despite the fact that we have probably been touching our faces 100 times per day all the while. If nothing else, the official warnings during this public health scare have at least highlighted many of the super-gross, albeit totally normal, things that we all do every day, such as rubbing our dirty hands all over our eyes and noses, and haranguing our spouses into blowing on our itchy cheeks. We could all stand to be more mindful of the ways in which we might make ourselves sick, for our own sake and for the sake of those most vulnerable to the coronavirus outbreak, like older people and those who already have respiratory or immune problems. If we freak out a little now—OK, a lot now—maybe we’ll tamp down those bad habits at least slightly as the virus spreads.